I’m just not excited about efficiency

… So we’re driving out to my daughter’s softball game in Hopkins, Michigan, and I choose to go straight instead of turning left at the shortcut. We’ve got plenty of time, and if I go straight I can turn past Sacred Heart Mission, which is a nicer drive.

My wife points out that this is not the fastest route. This is not the first time I choose the slower route; I commonly turn out the driveway to go downtown instead of taking M-89. Why is that?

I Pause.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you realize there is no right answer? Where the other person asks “why” or “couldn’t you just…?” but they actually mean “There is no good reason” or “You should”?

Again, I Pause.

Carefully choosing each word, I say something like “well, I’m reluctant to answer. A proper answer would take a long time. But the short version is this: I suspect that I do not value efficiency as much as you do.”

That did not go over well.

So let me share with you the longer version, that went over better.

Efficient … or Effective?

We tend to use these terms interchangeably, but when you look them up in the dictionary, they mean subtly different things. Efficiency is a measure of utilization; we might say a gas furnace is highly efficient if most of heat goes out the heating ducts and into the house — as opposed to out the exhaust, or heating the basement. A 100% efficient furnace would let no heat escape. When it comes to technology workers, we typically mean a team is ‘efficient’ if everyone is working, all the time. To do this with clerical jobs, we can create an always-filling inbox, but with knowledge workers we typically need to have them work on multiple projects at the same time.

Effectiveness, however, is different. Effectiveness is how good we are at accomplishing the task at hand. Consider the typical fire department. Couched in these terms, it is not efficient – 95% of the time a paid staff is sitting around, training or cleaning the equipment. Yet when we do have those 5% of emergencies, we need someone to respond quickly.

In that case, the fire department has a conflict between efficiency and effectiveness. And, for the sake of public safety, they’ll choose effectiveness every time.

Likewise, all over the world, there are fighter pilots and entire airborne brigades standing at the ready, collecting salary. 99% of he time, they’ll be sitting around playing cards. But you want them standing at the ready, don’t you? I sure do.

In some jobs designed a certain way — perhaps on an assembly line — efficiency and effectiveness can be interchangeable. Not so in software.

This isn’t my idea; Tom DeMarco explains how administrative assistants need a quick response time, thus they need to have built in slack in his book by the same name. Eli Goldratt, creator of the theory of constraints, talks about having factory employees waiting for the instant that the machine is done in order to load quickly in his opus The Goal.

But what’s that got to do with driving to a softball game?

Well, it has to do with optimization. Optimization is another word we like to use a lot, and it ties back to efficiency or effectiveness. Optimization doesn’t just mean doing a better job at the work. It means pushing the work toward the best possible way of doing it — the optimal way.

The things, I find that optimal is generally best for a given way of thinking.

When we do the building project, and we get to the point that we are trying to save a penny on each brick, someone will say “hey, with ten thousand bricks, you are starting to talk about real money.”

I yawn. Or, more accurately, when we get to an optimization problem, I start looking for a different way of thinking. For example, if we are near the best we can possibly get for brick, let’s look into concrete or some other building supply.

Optimization, in my experience, is often a lot of work to squeeze out a little more reward.

I’m not excited about it.

In a similar way, if I’m water-sealing my deck, and I’m moderately fast at it, I don’t look for a faster system of using a paint brush. Instead, I’ll look into using a paint roller. I don’t want to optimize paint-rolling, either — I discovered spray-on water seal.

It’s the same thing in software. Oh, sure, it’s good to write a batch script to save us some typing. It’s good to have an automated setup of our test environment instead of manually configuring. Don’t get me wrong. But there’s something that happens — some tipping point, where we are spending a lot of mental energy to eke out an improvement from 95% to 97.5%. Me, I’ll just leave it at 95% and look for something else to improve.

In some cases I just don’t find any more improvement. Until hovercraft, low-flying aircraft, or the teleporter become popular, the fastest way to get to Hopkins from Allegan is going to be taking A-37.

It’s going to take at least 55 seconds longer to get there if you take 20th Avenue.

Forc me to choose between efficiency and effectiveness and I’ll choose effective every time. Yet even when the two align, sometimes the difference in approaches is round-off error. And, when that happens, there are other things to consider, like Aesthetics.

20th Avenue is a drive I haven’t taken a thousand times, and it has it’s own special charms, including Fat Blossom Farm and Sacred Heart Hall.

I think I’ll take it.

15 comments on “I’m just not excited about efficiency

  1. During a radio show I was listening to in the car once, a doctor was talking about ways to improve your brain activity by changing little things in your routine. One of those things was taking different routes when you drive/walk somewhere.

    I can't find a good article in English, but I was able to find this:


    The route from my home to work can be done in 4 different ways, they all take almost the same time. So, every two or three days I take a different route and pay find out new things on my way to/from work 🙂


  2. It's a big and important point that we tend to neglect. One of the many useful lessons that got drummed into me when I was an IT auditor was to remember the distinction between effectiveness and efficiency.

    Too often we obsess over efficiency and forget about effectiveness. The result is that we try hard to find cheaper and faster ways to do things that are of marginal benefit, or don't even notice we're doing the wrong thing completely.

    It's like worrying about our fuel consumption on a drive to Gareloch in Argyll without noticing that we were really supposed to be a couple of hundred miles away at Gairloch in Wester Ross.

    Efficiency's pointless unless you're effective, so you need to be able to sit back and think what's important and what you need to do before you decide the most efficient way to do it.

  3. I took a seven habits of effective people course a few years back.

    The coruse was about focussing on the second quadrant

    First quadrant is important and urgent
    Second quadrant is important and not urgent
    Third quadrant is urgent and not important
    Fourth quadrant is not urgent en not important.
    Steven Covey effective people focus on the second quadrant.

    The third quadrant (urgent but not important) you delegate as much as possible.

    The theory says: the more focus on the second quadrant the less stuff will end up in the first quadrant.(as you have take care of them before they become urgent)

    My question was: what if you're job is firefighting.
    (so your job description is the first quadrant)

    The answer I had was very interesting: he gave me an example of a fire department, that had done exactly this.
    and the better they are at doing this, the less they have to do firefighting.

    Most fire department are not at 5% of accidents fighting (fires + car accidents etc), they are more at 30% or higher.

    The ones that are the lowest, are the ones that use there time for quadrant 2 activities: like learn their community how to prevent fire etc

  4. oh, and this is something every managers from an IT hardware department knows.
    You don't use your servers at 80% or higher…
    Why do we do this with people? (who are more error prone then hardware)

  5. Yves raises a point that was the cause of a political controversy in Scotland earlier this year. A report from a think tank claimed that the health service in Scotland was less efficient than in England.

    It was a very complex argument, but the focus on "efficiency" was misconceived. Scotland takes a different approach to health provision from England, where the emphasis is on meeting targets, on waiting lists, admissions, durations of stays in hospital, etc. Scotland probably tries to place more emphasis on effectiveness, rather than efficiency. The Scottish Health Service was criticised for processing fewer hospital admissions per doctor and nurse than in England.

    That seems utterly perverse. Taking that approach means that if you assign health professionals to prevention work, to stop people getting ill and entering hospital then you are classed as inefficient.

    Also, if you rush people out of hospital too quickly, then have to re-admit them, you are being more efficient. You've got two admissions instead of one, unlike those wasters who were blowing money on stopping the patient getting ill

    Before worrying about efficiency you need to be quite clear about what you are trying to do effectively. In that case, the answer should have been looking after the health of the people, not processing them through hospitals.

  6. We tend not to be anyway so efficient when doing stuff we like. Like spending too much money, going to risky areas, getting into troubles for something or someone etc.
    But maybe following that pleasures when we don't have too many occasions could improve something in ourselves.


  7. I also enjoy the experience and small joys of life far more than efficiency. Variety is key in keeping your mind alert, and I suspect this is a common trait in testers.

    Next time, try something a bit emotionally less problematic, like, "I get a kick out of going this way. Try it. It will be fun!"

    We have rules. If I drive, I control the radio, if Craig drives, he controls the radio, and we BOTH help with maps and GPS if needed when not driving. We also both contribute to what stories on CD we might both enjoy before long trips. It has made driving SO much better. Neither of us are joyously happy being in cars or driving (both have some bad accidents in our past), so it lowers the stress. If I never have another relationship fight while in a car I'll be happy. Far too many fights happen there.

  8. You should check out the theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor, one of the pioneers of the Scientific Management movement at the turn of the century. The very concept of "perfect efficiency" can I think be safely laid at his feet and the feet of his followers/peers. It always amazes me how deeply his concepts of perfection through minute analysis of components instead of the whole product has permeated out culture.

  9. Knorr, I heard that once too, about taking a different route to work. Getting out of your routine can be a good thing. I'm always in a mad dash to go wherever I'm going. I need to take on less work so I can do a better job and feel like I have time to think and experiment. I tell teams this all the time but I don't take my own advice!

  10. Wheeling back to Matt's original point, it reminded me of a discussion on the Software Testing Club (http://www.softwaretestingclub.com/forum/topics/change-password-screen-what-is) last year about the best way to set up a password change screen,

    I politely suggested it was no big deal, and it wasn't worth worrying too much about the usability of a brief task that users would perform only once every few weeks. However, Kashif seemed rather fixated on getting it just right.

    Going for that last little extra bit of efficiency is not just pointless, it's counter-productive. There are more important things we should be doing something about. Aiming for perfect efficiency is possibly more about personal pride than about doing the best job we can for our client or employer.

  11. Hi Curtis. Thanks for the comments.

    And, Ohhh yes, do I know about ol' Frederick W. Taylor. Search this blog for 'Taylor' and you'll find quite a fair bit. 🙂

    I do think your comment about exactly what Taylorism does (focus on sub-optimization instead of the whole system) is accurate and interesting, and you said it well and succinctly. Me, I struggle to make those points in under 300 words. Thank you for that! 🙂

  12. While I do not your roads in your area, I frequently encounter the same issue with my wife. Route 20 to I-64 to Beckley is more direct and faster, provided there is not a back up of traffic on Brooks mountain, or on the interstate in between. Route 3 is windier, takes more time, has more lights, but has the benefit of a more scenic drive and may have fewer accidents on average because of speed limit differences.

    My wife likes route 3, I prefer route 20, maybe cause I don't like taking forever to get from A to B, or perhaps because I find the Interstate more appealing to a regular 2 lane.

    Here's another example. When we were visiting relatives there are multiple ways to get to places in and around Charleston, WV. I choose to cross at X bridge, and then take a back way to a major intersection because if there's congestion, there tends to be more coming from one direction then the one I choose.

    Also I tend to try and go to a place where I can go to a light to turn if its a busy intersection, even if it takes longer because it feels a bit safer in some areas than to just wait and turn left.

    I suspect if you test the efficiency and effectiveness of different routes in different parts of the country you will find there are multiple factors in decision making.

  13. But there's something that happens — some tipping point, where we are spending a lot of mental energy to eke out an improvement from 95% to 97.5%. Me, I'll just leave it at 95% and look for something else to improve.

    Economics has a concept for this: Marginal Value.

    At some point the marginal value of doing some activity (or purchasing a product) drops below the marginal value of some other activity (or product), so you switch.

  14. Well – 20th Ave IS a nice drive. When I've been through there, it seems most folks drive just a tad slower on 20th then on 37, hence allowing the driver and passengers to appreciate the scenery. But that's just me.

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